Bobby, Paul and I are seated at a glowing, polygonal glass box. A human-sized Thai goddess floats above us like a supermodel in Assumption, sashaying in flight. She’s made of wood but clothed in real red-purple-and-gold fabric. Encased in our see-through dinner table are two more deities—one clearly female, the other apparently male but with an elaborate snarl stylized on his fanged faced. Cavorting below floor level, they are frozen in mid-dance and reflected over and over in mirrored walls. Nevertheless, as a manifestation of Qi—a chain of Thai restaurants in New York City—the 14th Street branch is rather sedate.
If you venture uptown into the Times Square area, you will find that Qi is like Nirvana designed by Philippe Starck—with white on white sculpted walls, clear plastic furniture, chandeliers cascading like giant crystalline jellyfish, blown-up 3D images of models clad as multi-armed Thai gods and goddesses and shod in stiletto heels. An enormous shrine dominates the center of the restaurant, with a glowing Buddha in its midst. It’s like a night club. But open for lunch.
But Bobby, Paul and I are having dinner at the 14th Street Qi, just west of Fifth Avenue, looking down through our table at a re-enactment of an episode from the Ramayana, the Indian epic adopted by the Thai as their own a thousand years ago. Despite the feral leer on the face of the male god, he is actually trying to rescue the female. He is Hanuman, the wonder-working monkey king and loyal companion of the Hindu god Ram, whose wife Sita has been abducted by the demon Ravana and taken to the faraway island of Lanka. In India and Thailand and Bali, Hanuman has become one of the most beloved of divinities, even though he does not look human, even though he is disfigured.
The legend goes that the young but already powerful Hanuman, the son of the wind, flew into the sky one day, childishly trying to swallow the sun, which he imagines is a gigantic ripe mango. The thunder god, alarmed that a giant maw is about to engulf the solar orb, unleashes a lightning bolt at the monkey’s jaw and Hanuman falls to earth, almost fatally wounded. But he survives to become the compassionate, humane companion of Ram. According to tradition, the divine ape’s name in Sanskrit means the one whose jaw (hanu) has been broken (man).
Former U.S. Army Staff Sargeant Bobby Henline never tried to swallow the sun. But his head was once burned to the bone. It is now like the surface of the moon, with bumps and craters and crenellations, a phrenological nightmare. It is an amalgam of his entire body, with skin from his arms, his belly, his crotch. One eye is lidless. He is almost earless: half a lobe on one side, a large hole on the other. His mouth, without an upper lip, is in permanent scowl—or smile, depending on the angle you look at it. His left arm ends in a bulbous stump.
Bobby doesn’t remember much about April 7, 2007. All he can recall is having two cups of coffee before heading out on patrol north of Baghdad. A few weeks later, he woke up in a hospital in Texas. All his companions on the Humvee that morning were dead, killed when their vehicle hit an IED.
In the six years since the incident, Bobby Henline has recreated himself. Survival alone would have been inspiration to fellow disabled veterans like himself. But after a medical odyssey that would have dispirited almost anyone—skin graft after skin graft that didn’t take, countless surgeries, an amputation—he has reconstructed his life, through humor. On sort of a dare from his therapist, Bobby Henline became a stand-up comic about three years ago. He learned to joke about the unspeakable: his own disfigurement, the visible evidence of his near death by fire.
His shtick is his looks—and the cathartic effect that his kind of lack of looks has on audiences. The jokes range from the gentle to the bawdy to the hilariously insensitive. He wears t-shirts that play off the milk industry slogan but simply saying “Got Burns.” He calls himself “the well-done comedian” and lies about how he got to look the way he does. “My mother was a fire eater.” And then adjusts the lie with a line about her “acid reflux.” He jokes about all the extra money he makes during the Halloween season—just by lying on the front lawns of neighbors. He has also posed for a picture of himself kneeling on the ground and sticking his handless arm up between the legs of a standing man, giving the generous impression of an excitable member of the male anatomy.
He talks about the unavoidable hazards of one-handedness: fecal accidents in public men’s rooms and the inadvertently dropped toilet rolls that lead to solicitations from wide-stanced occupants in neighboring stalls. He talks about his gay brother and joining him at bars with suggestive names. He talks about how he likes to discomfit the conservative audiences in Texas, where he lives. He says he is about to learn to rope cattle as part of a series about vets for PBS. He hasn’t written the jokes about that yet.
I did not expect to meet Bobby Henline that evening. I had been hoping to have dinner with a friend who had canceled once before. But that friend canceled once again. That put me in a foul enough mood, at least until I ran into Paul Moakley, TIME magazine’s deputy Chief of Photography, and reluctantly agreed to join him for dinner with Bobby, who was in town for one of Paul’s projects for the magazine. I chose to go to Qi because Paul said Bobby liked Thai food; and the food curated by Pichet Ong for the chain is quite good. It did not occur to me that our table would be a centerpiece for Hanuman, the broken god who rose from the ashes, and for Bobby, the broken soldier who did the same.
He can only jog when the temperature is 70 degrees or below, otherwise he would overheat.
It is not a laugh-a-minute evening. Bobby wasn’t trying to be funny. He was simply being himself. I discover that we have a few things in common: He’s from San Jose, California originally. My sister lives there now. He now lives in San Antonio, Texas. I have a good friend who used to work at SeaWorld in San Antonio. Bobby and his wife have four kids, one of whom is about to finish college. Well, I have no kids. I like to run, and so does he, but he can only jog when the temperature is 70 degrees or below. Otherwise, he’d overheat, because he has lost so many sweat glands.
And I keep staring at his head.
Looking at his face is like taking some kind of Rorschach test. I keep on seeing so many people I knew in him. I see features of friends I hadn’t seen in a while, both living and dead, fictional and not, of famous people, of animated characters (look, from this angle, it’s Shrek; from this angle, it’s Vin Diesel as Riddick). And then I realize what I’m doing: I’m trying to make him look human. By pouring my memories and connotations into the skin stretched like a ski-mask over his skull, I was inputting the intimacy and personality of “real” people. But Bobby doesn’t need my help to be human. You hear it in his voice. You see it in his eyes. And you realize you see it in his face. He has been human all along—burns and all. It’s a job he never signed up for—helping people work through their own reactions—but even without his jokes, Bobby Henline provides catharsis.
The city’s hormones are raging. No one pays attention to the deeply scarred veteran.
We all head for The Immigrant, a wine bar in the east village, where Bobby knows the bartender and flirts with her. She flirts back while pouring him a Guinness. Then another. It’s about 2 o’clock when I walk him back to his hotel on Allen Street. Friday night has become Saturday and the city’s hormones are raging. In the heat of the cool night, the young and the skanky are making out or making their way home. No one pays attention to the deeply scarred veteran walking past them.
At the beginning of the evening, I was furious that someone had reneged on dinner. But then I met Bobby and the night became funny, poignant, drunken, better. I still wish the world was mine to mold but it can be so much more profound when I let it shape me. And that, as Staff Sergeant Henline might say, is no joke.